Wednesday 22 November 2017

Reford: The secret Dublin years

Robert Redford just wanted to remain anonymous in the Dublin restaurant. Then Dickie Rock started singing The Way We Were . . .The movie legend came to Howth to work on his biography with Michael Feeney Callan. As he prepares for the book launch, the writer recalls some close encounters with locals

Robert Redford. Photo: Reuters
Robert Redford. Photo: Reuters

Paul Newman once told me, "Call the book The Late Robert Redford," and the words rebounded in my brain as I sat in the lounge of Redford's rented house in Ceanchor Road in Howth and watched him dawdle.

It was a frosty December day with whitecaps on the bay beyond the window and Christmas heavily in the air. Redford had agreed to sing with my children's school choir in Grafton Street at midday and it was already past eleven-thirty.

I was looking forward to his performance. He'd long wanted to make a musical, pined even for Phantom of the Opera, and I'd heard him sing in the shower: he was a good, robust baritone. But the clock was ticking.

He finally got moving past twelve and I wedged him into my MG and jumped some red lights. We arrived in Grafton Street to a monsoon downpour and empty streets. The school carollers, fundraising for the Children's Hospital, had left.

Redford and I repaired to Little Caesar's Pizzeria for penne arrabiata and his favourite Merlot. The meal was interrupted by the blinding flashes of cameras from neighbouring tables and we summoned Hassam, the owner, who politely asked the offenders to desist.

Redford was unfazed. His preoccupation was his subject-of-the-moment which, in view of the fact that I was writing his life story, was his relationship with the cobblestones of Dublin.

My food stuck in my gullet. I was thinking of the Christmas disappointment of kids who still believed in Santa. "Don't worry," he drawled in his saddlebum burr. "We'll sort 'em out."

The next day the choir of the kids from the Burrow School in Sutton was his priority. First and truly a family man, he had bonded with my children, Corey and Paris, on our visits to his homes in Utah and in Calistoga, north of San Francisco. Paris, then eight, had requested him to collect her from school and he was ready to oblige.

Take two. We went to see the choir.

My first childhood encounter with the hysteria that surrounds fame was hunched on my father's shoulders in June 1963 watching President Kennedy swan over Drumcondra Bridge in a shiny blue mohair suit with an impossible tan.

The surge of sound as people cheered shocked me and I remember a woman beside me shouting, "You're f***ing gorgeous."

In the years after, in my work in film and TV, I'd ventured out in company with Roger Moore, Joan Collins, members of the Beach Boys. But I'd never again experienced unbridled fame-mania. It happened all the time in Redford's company.

Wherever he went, literally everywhere, he was recognised. Blessed with a Beatles hairline and the body of an Olympian, he'd retained his sexy good looks despite arthritic knees, the family curse. One could read his mood by the application of his favourite French beret. If he wore it jauntily, he was ready for the people. If he pulled it close to his eyebrows, stay away.

His gloominess was not whimsical, but associated with work.

If a script or a reading project had his attention, he was unreceptive to the public. Only one person -- Dickie Rock -- breached this. Once, when we were dining at La Caprice in St Andrew's Street, Feula, the kind and accommodating owner, had arranged a screened-off area at the back of the restaurant for privacy.

Redford was working the script of The Legend of Bagger Vance and we were immersed in discussion of his pet gripe: that mythology was lost in the culture. My wife, Ree, dropped us to the doorway of La Caprice and Feula navigated us discreetly to the cubby. Redford's beret was tight over his eyes and he passed unseen.

But Dickie Rock was also dining across the room and he spotted Redford and whispered to the resident pianist. Dickie's acknowledgement was swift and dignified. He sidled up to the piano and started singing The Way We Were.

I winced, but Redford loved it. Dickie waved. Bob waved back. "Soundtrack of my life," he said. And the beret came off.

At Burrow Road School there was no beret and the public encounter was less like President Kennedy than a scene from A Hard Day's Night. Redford was immaculately well-mannered, as he always is with children, and listened as the kids (none of whom, I'm certain, knew who he was) sang a cowboy carol (really).

Then he disrupted class by boldly collecting Paris and Corey with the authority of a truant officer. In the yard, the yummy mummies of Sutton and Howth did the doubletake. Is it him? It can't be. It is!

The sonic level in the yard surged. Scraps of paper to be autographed materialised, high heels clicked and clacked in desperate pursuit and the kids rolled at him like debris on a tidal wave.

By then, Redford and I had been working on our book for several years and we had the private semaphore down pat. His expression said: Let's move. So I manhandled him into the car.

Celebrity took its toll on Redford and he was candid about its effects. Born close to Hollywood in 1936, the very first person to hold him was the Marcus Welby actor Robert Young, his mother's cousin.

Redford "drifted," he says, into acting, first impacting in series like The Virginian and The Twilight Zone, finally achieving stardom almost accidentally in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where he was championed by director George Roy Hill, both of whose parents were Irish and who had schooled at Trinity.

Throughout the 1970s Redford was the number one global box office star. The rapid acceleration of global media meant his name and image were disseminated in a way Errol Flynn's, or even Elvis's, never were. Redford recalls attempting to escape from it all by taking a hiking trip alone in Nepal.

He got off the plane in Kathmandu and was mobbed.

There were constant invasions of privacy. A kidnap plot by Right-wing extremists in Paris following his Nixon-debunking film All the President's Men. Threats to his children. Spurious gossip-mongering. Offensive personal intrusions following the murder of his daughter Shauna's fiance.

In the circumstances the prospect of hideaway has always been exciting for Redford. In the early 1960s it was the reason he chose to invest all his savings in building a bolt hole in the Wasatch Mountains, in Utah.

This became his home -- more accurately, a homestead in the American frontier sense -- and the base for his independent arts institute, called Sundance.

Dublin attracted him in the same way and the perverse attitude of the Irish toward celebrity was especially enjoyable for him. The yummy mummies might wail and want, but Irish wit and wisdom was never far away.

Once, another Christmastime, Redford decided he wanted a seasonal drink in a city centre pub. We chose the Mercantile on Dame Street, which was packed to the gills. We entered -- just Ree, Redford and me -- and stood by the crowded bar near the door.

Immediately a six-foot-six giant loomed threateningly. There was an ominous silent moment as the hulk swayed over Redford, leering... Then, without breaking his grim stare, he said with enormous deliberation: "Paul Newman". And disappeared.

Redford loved the Irish way, he says, because his great-grandmother was Irish. He grew up in Los Angeles, but his family was divided between east coast and west, with Lena Taylor, his influential grandmother, constantly feeding him stories of the Fenians and Irish derring-do.

His grandfather regularly boozed with Eugene O'Neill and when Redford broke through on the American stage in 1960, it was in James Costigan's Little Moon of Alban, in which he played an IRA man alongside Liam Clancy.

Roots are Redford's obsessive interest. All his directorial movies (he won an Academy Award for his first, Ordinary People) are about the origins of personal and social issues. Accordingly, being back in Ireland, he says felt "natural".

In Costigan's play, Redford's character walks on to a bridge over the Liffey for a final speech. Redford wanted to recreate the moment, so we went out late one night to the Ha'penny Bridge, where he quietly recited Costigan's text. He turned to me and said, "Homecoming".

While in Dublin, on several visits over a decade, Redford never ceased working. Apart from our formal tapings for the book, he worked on a number of film scripts and on progressing Sundance.

Sundance, his beloved "second career", is devoted to promoting diversity in alternative, independent filmmakers, further articulating his belief that "other voices need to be heard". At the turn of the millennium, he asked me to take him to the Irish Film Centre, whose set-up interested him.

His plan then was to build what he called Sundance Cinema Centers all around the world. These new movie houses would counter the multiplexes, presenting an alternative cinema experience in environs that were not vanilla walls but rather historically authentic architecture appropriate to the city or town.

The stonework of the original Quaker building that houses the IFC impressed him and he slapped the walls admiringly. "That's why I love the Irish," he said. "You never disown the past."

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